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Guarding against stranger danger tightening its grip

It was a news bulletin that tugged at the heart: "When she was last seen, five- year-old April Jones was wearing -" What parent didn't hold their children tighter as they watched the people of Machynlleth fan out across the countryside searching for the little girl who smiled so engagingly from screens and posters?

The darkness of child abduction had bypassed their door this time. It must never come knocking. Their children would be better protected than ever.

I know these thoughts only too well because the child serial killer Robert Black was on the loose when my children were small. When five-year-old Susan Hogg went missing from Portobello beach, police searched the park where my children played. When 11-year-old Susan Maxwell was taken from Coldstream Bridge, a close friend's garden was combed. Black was caught in Stow, a Borders village near where we'd holidayed; too close for comfort.

There is no way of exaggerating the fear men like him instil. It's primeval. It throws you back to unnameable threats, to Red Riding Hood and all the other big bad wolves – except in real life no-one lives happily ever after.

Children die, parents are left devastated, families grieve and bruised communities lose faith in their fellow man. If such a thing could happen here, where is safe? Trust, a fragile thing, goes.

Reason says the crime is rare but something deeper, more ancient, tells you not to take the risk with your own children: that lightning can strike twice.

So it wasn't just the threat of city traffic that kept my children indoors when they could have been out – or supervised when they should have been freely roaming with others of their own age. It was stranger danger.

Every time a child goes missing a little bit of freedom for a generation of children goes. And that too is a great wrong. Yet when I checked up yesterday on Scotland's crime figures for child abduction, the nonsense of cooping children was obvious. The Scottish Government holds no separate statistics for child abduction. That in itself is an indication of the rarity of the crime.

Individual police forces have statistics which show that in 2011/12 there were 221 cases reported. On closer inspection that's not as alarming as it seems. The term child abduction is not restricted to the abduction of children. There were two cases categorised as "child stealing" because they involved children under the age of puberty. But incidences such as where a separated or divorced parent keeps a child over the agreed access time is classed as abduction as is when one child has been stopped by another, for example to steal a mobile phone.

We know when there are abductions of the kind April suffered because they dominate the news. They are exceedingly rare. And yet how many Scottish children have their wings clipped for fear of bogie men?

Stranger danger was listed by the National Trust in England earlier this year when it flagged up that some parents give their children less freedom to roam than free-range chickens. It talked about Nature Deficit Disorder whereby children raised without access to green spaces can suffer increased rates of obesity and develop mental health issues. You can see why. Try offering a dog the daily living pattern of many children and you'll soon have one fat and neurotic animal.

This corralling of children is a triumph of pessimism over experience. Many of today's parents deny their children the freedom they once enjoyed themselves. I was guilty of this. Once I was seven or eight years old, I came and went as I pleased during daylight hours and I did so in safety. But I didn't allow my children to follow suit.

It's true that April was playing outside unsupervised when she was taken. But the little girl lived in a circle of houses with a communal playing green at its centre. The neighbours knew her. She was there with a friend when her parents popped along to the school for a short parents' meeting. It will haunt them to their dying day.

It shouldn't. They should console themselves that while April lived she had a full and happy life. That much was obvious in the photographs of her.

I was in Amsterdam last month and was amazed by the freedom Dutch children enjoy. It's a city of cycle lanes. After school, throngs of children pedalled along laughing and chatting as they made their way home independently. They owned the streets in a way no child does here. They were a visible and empowered section of the community – not caged pets driven from schoolroom to sitting room; not potential victims waiting to be picked off.

It's true the marvels of technology offer children entertaining and educative reasons for playing indoors. But helicopter parenting shouldn't prevent them from exploring other types of fun.

A survey of 5000 young people in the 10-15 age range conducted by the University of Essex found what makes them happiest is a healthy lifestyle, friends, a stable home life and a sense of community. It held true across income groups. In other words going for a swim and hanging out with their friends matters more than owning the latest gizmo. The same survey showed that while an hour on the internet makes them happy, excessive time online is a hallmark of misery.

Essentially the challenge for parents is to overcome their own irrational fear, the better to protect their children from a form of deprivation.

Children benefit from having the freedom to play unsupervised with their friends outdoors. They have a right to discover the natural world from the muddy puddle upwards.

Freedom to roam will protect them from obesity, allow them to develop team-building skills and keep them better emotionally balanced.

It's the best, most natural and most fulfilling lifestyle for our children. We should not, and cannot, allow our fear of rare rogue males to snatch it from them. I regret that I did.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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